Lost and found-- Law professor takes cynical look at old age in latest book

By Kurt Anthony Krug

Legal News

It's hard to categorize the genre in which William Ian Miller's latest book, "Losing It," belongs.

"It's been reviewed as a memoir, but that makes it more personal than it is. I actually think of it as meditation and an essay on growing old," said Miller, 66, about "Losing It" (Yale University Press $20).

A native of Green Bay, Miller currently lives in Ann Arbor with Kathleen Koehler, his wife of 29 years. They have four grown children. Miller received his undergraduate degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He went on to receive his juris doctorate in law and his Ph.D. in English--both at Yale University. Since 1984, he has been the Thomas G. Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School.

"I'm really a medieval historian. I just have an appointment at a law school. My specialty is medieval Iceland and Icelandic sagas," he said. "In academics, you have to write--it's publish or perish, right? I just range a little more widely than many academics in my writing, that's all... I love being able to write what I love. I also love teaching... It's a job from heaven--I'm even a pessimist and I say that."

"Losing It "--which was reviewed in The Wall Street Journal--is perhaps best described as a satirical, if not dim, view about growing old, losing your memory, and the emotions accompanying it. Miller's no stranger to writing about emotions, mostly unpleasant ones as demonstrated in four of his previous nine books: 1993's "Humiliation," 1997's "The Anatomy of Disgust," 2000's "The Mystery of Courage," and 2003's "Faking It."

"'Losing It' is about the anxiety a person who is a professor who lives by his brain has and sees one's mental abilities decline. It's no different than one's physical abilities," explained Miller. "I can't run as fast, and I can't think as fast, especially since I'm a historian and you rely on large accumulations of information - you have to have a memory that's functional. And then you see your memory start to go. Of course, you start to panic about it, right? So you try to figure out when it's time to close up shop."

He continued: "We're not forced to retire (in academics); you just have to make a call when people start looking at you like, 'What the hell you doing around here? Go free up some space for some young blood.' It's the anxiety of am I delivering any goods yet or am I declining so much that it's a joke I continue to draw my salary? You try to get a fix on it but you can't trust your own judgment because it's your own judgment that's decaying. The idea that you get wiser in your old age is a crock. How's that supposed to happen as you're sinking into dementia?"

The book starts with Miller's own anxieties about growing old, then goes into how people took their leave in medieval and biblical times when there were no retirement ages."There's these ceremonies, these rituals when a person just declares they're (done). In one of them, they just ostentatiously lay in bed. That means they're out of the game. To other people, that gesture might be a flamboyant way of asking for help too--'I need some help doing this.' It's more complicated than that, but I just look for all these rituals," he said. "Then I discuss all kinds of ways of how you can go out--Can you go out in style? What do you do with your property? Can you take it with you? What's the best way in this day and age when there's no heroic way to go out at all? I talk about all my fantasies about that."

One thing that really made him was learning the brain begins shrinking when a person is in his or her 30s. He found this out when he took his father in for a CAT scan prior to his death four years ago. According to Miller, his father became totally demented.

"The doctor looks at the CAT scan and says, 'I don't see anything here other than the normal shrinkage of the brain in a man of 86.' And I say, 'Shrinkage?' She says, 'Yep, the brain shrinks.' So I started thinking that it was just a metaphor. But it turns out that your brain's just shrinking from age 30 on; it just keeps getting smaller and smaller, and it starts accelerating in your 50s. So you got a lot of wide open windy spaces up there at my age. Why should you think it's different from any other muscle? My calves aren't as big. My thighs aren't as big. My biceps never were very big, but they sure aren't as big as they were 30 years ago," said Miller.

That was the impetus for Miller to write "Losing It."

"I really have no patience for the American upbeat, this power of positive thinking, this cult of positivity. There's all these books out there about how old people are happier than ever before, that the golden years are the best times of your life - that's a crock. Anyone who says that means they're well on their way to dementia. I mean, it's a lot of fun that your knees, your elbows, your hips, every single joint hurts. Never do any of these surveys say how many of these old people are taking Pixel or mood elevators," he said. "When I was growing up, when you hit 65, you were considered an old geezer. Nowadays people say that's not old because we tacked on another 15-20 years to our life expectancy. Greater life expectancy is destroying the country because we can't afford. Old people aren't contributing much to economy; they just suck out of it. I'm saying that and I'm about to do so."

He doesn't have plans to retire any time soon, however.

"I've got four kids and they're expensive and they're going to college. A couple are in grad school, one wants to be an actress I've got to keep working to fund their bad habits. I want to close up shop at 72, but I might have to go longer. But I will not go any longer if I feel that I'm not delivering the goods... I'll need others to tell me that; I won't trust my own judgment."

Published: Thu, Mar 29, 2012